Kyrie Irving has been traded to the Boston Celtics by the Cleveland Cavaliers. While trading a 25-year-old All-Star point guard in the middle of his prime is rarely a good idea, the Cavs clearly won this deal.
In return for Irving, the Cleveland received Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 unprotected first-round pick. That’s a huge haul that perfectly fits what the Cavs need right now, especially when you consider how discontented Irving was. He needed to be shipped out, and Boston gave up a ton of value to acquire him.
First, let’s look at what the Cavs traded away. Irving is 25, a four-time All-Star and just finished sixth season in the NBA. During the 2016-17 season, he posted career-highs in points (25.2), field goal percentage (47.3) and PER (23.09). While that all looks great, he didn’t stack up well when measured against other top players using advanced stats.
Irving finished 23rd in PER, 17th in offensive win shares (7.4), 157th in defensive win shares (1.5), 23rd in total win shares (8.9) and 44th in win shares per 48 minutes (.170). He was 28th in value over replacement player (2.9) and 49th in box plus/minus (2.5). So according to advanced stats, he was roughly between the 20th and 50th most valuable player in the NBA last season. And it was likely his best professional campaign so far.
The Cavs scored a replacement at point guard in Thomas, who was electrifying during the 2016-17 season. He averaged career-highs in points (28.9), field goal percentage (46.3), PER 26.59), true shooting percentage (62.5) and turnover percentage (8.7). The two-time All-Star was fantastic and carried the Celtics for much of the season.
While he’s three years older than Irving — and wildly undersized at 5’9″ — Thomas was far better than Kyrie last season according to advanced metrics. Thomas was second in offensive win shares (10.9), 145th in defensive win shares (1.6), ninth in total win shares (12.5) and 11th in win shares per 48 (.234). He was also 15th in value over replacement player (4.8) and 18th in box plus/minus (5.4).
Yes, Thomas is set to hit free agency next summer so he’ll need a big contract extension, while Irving can opt out in 2019. So the Celtics get one more guaranteed year out of Kyrie than the Cavs do out of Thomas. But both guys will wind up being extremely expensive soon, so that aspect of the deal is almost a wash.
If you take the position that Irving is a markedly better player now than Thomas and/or has a brighter future, that’s fine and I might even agree with you. But the Cavs got so much more from this trade. They added Crowder, a versatile workhorse on the wing who is coming off a season in which he averaged 13.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 32.4 minutes per game. He also posted career-highs in field goal percentage (46.3) and 3-point percentage (39.8). Crowder is under contract for three more seasons and is due just $21.9 million total over that span. That is an extremely manageable deal for the Cavs to take on.
Zizic is a bit of a lottery ticket pickup for Cleveland. He’s a 20-year-old Croatian 7-footer with a decent amount of international experience. The 23rd pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Zizic has yet to make his NBA debut. If he winds up being as good as he’s been hyped to be during his time in Europe, he would become the only legit center on the Cavs roster (no, Tristan Thompson doesn’t count). Cleveland’s need for more length and firepower in the post showed during its loss to the Golden State Warriors in the 2017 NBA Finals.
But the big prize in all of this — even more important than the addition of Thomas — is the acquisition of the Nets’ first-rounder in the 2018 NBA Draft. Brooklyn is set to be awful again next season and that unprotected pick should at least land in the top five. That means the Cavs would have a legitimate shot at Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr., Mohamed Bamba, DeAndre Ayton or Slovenian wiz-kid Luka Doncic.
Now lets assume for a minute LeBron James still leaves the Cavs after next season. Even if that happens and they get nothing in return, the Irving deal sets them up to be competitive in his absence. Cleveland got a primary scorer in Thomas, a tough wing with skill in Crowder, a potential future rim-protector in Zizic and a potential superstar to build with in the Nets pick. That’s a great trade.
On Boston’s end, Irving is still just 25 and is wildly talented. In fact, he’s one of the best point guards in the league. That said, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has set his system up for a “share the ball” mentality, and Kyrie prefers to be ball-dominant and play in one-on-one situations. Could Stevens tame Irving and get him to buy-in? Perhaps. But it’s just as likely that Irving wants to test free agency in two years and leave Boston on pins and needles hoping he returns.
The Celtics are taking a huge risk with this deal. Irving is a wildcard and an often sour teammate, while that Nets pick could produce a legitimate superstar.
The Cavs had done virtually nothing right all offseason, but they won Tuesday’s trade. And I don’t think it was close.